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Is smart tech the new domestic battle ground? | Life and style

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I came into the kitchen recently to find my husband cradling our electricity smart meter with the kind of tender attention more usually directed to a new-born, his phone clutched in his free hand. “You didn’t turn your office heater off last night,” he said. I didn’t like his tone.

“I did! I went in this morning to turn it on again!”

“You can’t have. Look.” He waved his phone. “Last night we used 10…” (here he added a unit, presumably of electricity, but all that stuff is Martian to me. Ten zaps? Ten whizzes?). “It shouldn’t be that high.”

“But I turned it off!”

But our smart home had spoken and it is far more reliable than me, his life partner of 26 years. Our house now has app-enabled devices to control the heating and the boiler remotely, to check temperature, CO2 and noise levels and to see who is at the door. There are motion-detector cameras in the garden that send us videos of foxes threatening my hens, or his tortoises escaping. Since we installed a few solar panels, my husband’s smart-home management has become more urgent and more granular. An app tells him how much we are consuming, but also how much we are producing, in real time. Now he bursts in when it’s sunny, shouting “We’re giving electricity to the grid! Use more!” In the evenings, I watch Succession; he studies our energy statistics. Technology has transformed him into a one-man home hub. “I used to think home smart technology was pointless,” he tells me. “But it really makes sense.”

I hate it. I don’t want my home to see me when I’m sleeping and know when I’m awake. It makes me feel bamboozled and disenfranchised: how do I make it warmer when I can’t just press a button on the wall? Why do I need an app to answer the door? I also get defensive: the climate emergency means my husband is absolutely right to try to limit our energy consumption, but we end up arguing about how long the heated clothes airer can run (“It’s 6p an hour!” I protest. “That’s not nothing if you leave it on all night,” he counters.) “Aren’t you worried,” I ask him, “You’ll end up like Facebook? The robots will malfunction and you’ll need an angle grinder to boil the kettle?” But he’s an engineer: no angle-grinder scenario could faze him.

‘Alexa is a soldier of the patriarchy. She refuses to listen to women.’
‘Alexa is a soldier of the patriarchy. She refuses to listen to women.’ Illustration: Phil Hackett/The Observer

I am the one who is out of step: our homes are smarter than ever. Tools with cosy, nature-inspired names (Nest, Hive) allow us to monitor and control homes even when we aren’t in them; other one-word devices (Blink, Ring) keep them safe. A 2019 survey found 57% of British homes have at least one kind of smart device; back in 2018 YouGov found 8% of homes have two or more. It’s too early for definitive research, but it seems Covid #stayathome living, perhaps combined with feeling life was out of control in other ways, increased our desire to micro- manage our environments. A government report found almost half of UK residents purchased at least one smart device during the pandemic and more than half said their smart device usage had increased. But what does this mean for the home-environment variable you can’t control with an app: human relationships?

“It’s almost inevitable that you wouldn’t both be equally keen on it,” says technology writer Charles Arthur. “You almost have a new way of living in your house, which you thought you knew, but now it’s: ‘Don’t touch that!’” For Hilda Burke, psychotherapist, couples counsellor and author of The Phone Addiction Workbook, smart tech has facilitated a perennial source of relationship conflict: temperature and energy usage. “It’s something that has been around for ages, but (now) it’s more data-driven and quantifiable. Before, you might not have evidence, but now there is.” Burke wonders if the urge to control and manage our homes is some kind of evolutionary throwback expressed through technology. “It is probably down to something quite basic and primal, like keeping a balance between being safe and warm and not depleting resources.”

Plenty of others feel there are three people in their relationship and one of them plugs in. I asked around and gathered their tales of domestic techno-woe. Joel and Anna live in Sydney with two young children and a house full of smart tech: a voice-controlled home pod that uses Siri, Google Home for shopping lists and a raft of programmed, motion-activated lights. Joel is the enthusiast: “I have always been into computers and gadgets,” he says. “I tolerate it because a man must have his hobbies,” says Anna. Some elements, however, she finds challenging. “I have been driven to minor furies with settings not working the way I think they have been set up. Joel’s not here and I’m bustling around trying to turn things on and off and it simply won’t respond to me.” She’s also wary of the home pod: “It does a little ‘boop’ noise, like ‘I’m listening to you,’ which is creepy.”

Anna likes the smart lights, which dim in the evening, go red for nocturnal loo trips and switch on automatically when they return home. But even these cause problems, leaving babysitters plunged in darkness, or turning on unexpectedly: Joel set the lights to notify him when an Uber arrived, then went out to find it, leaving Anna and her mother in an inexplicably flashing house. “It was terrifying,” says Anna; “I can see that was a mistake,” concedes Joel.

dog runnig off with an alexa speaker
‘Some households have seamlessly integrated virtual assistants, viewing them as a drawback-free life enhancement.’ Photograph: Phil Hackett/The Observer

Things get weirder when we invite Alexa, Siri and friends into our relationships. One recurrent complaint about virtual home assistants is their tendency to only obey one half of a couple. “Our Alexa refuses to respond to me,” says Robert. “She’s linked to our lights, only answers to my husband, who has to rescue me when it gets dark. This morning she inexplicably put every light on. Point blank refused to turn them off when I asked.” When Robert’s husband gets involved, Alexa is “entirely compliant”. My friend Rhian feels similarly snubbed. “Alexa is a soldier of the patriarchy,” she says. “Fully ignores me, while responding immediately to Paul. She refuses to listen to women.”

Joel and Anna have experienced this too, though Joel believes his tech is not inherently misogynistic. “Because I set it up, I know exactly the phrase that needs to be used and Anna doesn’t,” he explains. “She’ll say it slightly wrong, then I say it and to her ear it sounds like I’m saying exactly the same thing in a calmer voice.” “It’s very annoying,” says Anna. They have both also struggled with shopping items that the Google Home mangled (‘Mississippi’ for miso soup; ‘shut up little Caesars’ for sharp little scissors’). Some have it even worse: “My Alexa interpreted ‘maple syrup’ as ‘nipple rings’, says Leona. “It was an unpleasant episode.” Rebecca’s Alexa told her son “Every Christmas present that was being delivered to him.”

It’s not all relationship doom. There are happy robot-human thruples out there. Some households have seamlessly integrated virtual assistants, viewing them as a drawback-free life enhancement. They include my friend Lydia’s. “Siri is a valued member of our family,” she says. “She tells us stories and jokes and how to spell things.” Sara’s family uses Siri to resolve arguments – “So much so that I feel we need Siri on retainer as our therapist,” she says.

Smart tech can also be a godsend for people living with a disability or health condition. Lisa-Marie has limited mobility and fine motor skills following a spinal injury; she loves the Google Home installed by her partner: “I find it genuinely useful, particularly on bad health days. My best bit is being able to switch the lights on and off from the sofa or bed.” Grudgingly, I see the benefits, but resent living in a house full of gadgetry I don’t understand, digitally highlighting my failings (yes, maybe I did leave that heater on). Hilda Burke urges those of us feeling left behind or irritated by a partner’s smart home tech to analyse whether it’s their behaviour, or our reactions, that are the problem. “We can get quite meddlesome, when it’s their time and their choice,” she cautions. For those, like me, occasionally feeling judged and found wanting by a coalition of robot-harvested data plus partner, Burke says: “There are parent, adult, or child ways we can respond. It’s not easy to be an adult: that parental voice – when someone says, ‘Did you put the radiator on?’ – brings us back to childhood.” The key to avoiding conflict is to respond calmly, as an adult: “Yes, I was feeling cold,” rather than expletive-laden bluster.

Perhaps we hold-outs will grow to love the cosy glow of a warm, bright home greeting us as we come in from the cold; a playlist starting up as the smart lock lets us in. But that might not be the end of our problems: what if we’re not smart enough for our smart homes? My husband is happy with all the circuitry he learned in his engineering studies, because some smart tech is genuinely tricky to install and maintain.

“I hope I die first,” is a common sentiment among tech-averse householders. “I live in fear of my husband dying before me, because I have no idea how any of it works and will be facing a dirty, cold, housebound life,” says Candida. Tom, who is responsible for the smart tech invasion in his home, worries that if he died, his family would be unable to function and would “grieve in cold darkness, soundtracked by the noise of the burglar alarm.”

Spurred by this, and my husband’s imminent two-week trip to the States, I delicately raise the question of what happens if he falls out of the sky. “You need to find and remove the circuit breakers,” he says, instantly losing me. “But it won’t be easy.” I’m urging him to update his will accordingly. The robot takeover may be imminent (I hope you’ve said please and thank you to Alexa and Siri), but who inherits them before it happens?

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New York’s mayor is getting paid in bitcoin. But can he pay the bills with it? | Eric Adams

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New York’s new mayor gets his first paycheck on Friday – and as part of his bid to keep the city “on the forefront of innovation”, he’ll be receiving his wages in cryptocurrency.

“New York is the center of the world and we want it to be the center of cryptocurrency and other financial innovations,” Eric Adams said in a press release.

But even in the center of the world, trying to live on ethereum or bitcoin might be a struggle. The subway won’t take it, and it’s hard to fit dogecoin in the quarter slot at the laundromat. So what will Adams actually be able to do with his paycheck?

Will he be able to eat?

Yes. Getting groceries might be difficult – in 2019, Whole Foods began accepting cryptocurrency via an app-based payment system called Flexa, but a customer care representative said on Thursday that the company was not currently taking cryptocurrency.

But the vegan mayor might have better luck at restaurants. Yelp allows users to filter for restaurants that accept cryptocurrency – though calls to the spots and visits to their websites suggest some of the claims are inaccurate.

He could also use a workaround and purchase a gift card with bitcoin using one of various platforms such as Bitrefill and Fold. That could get him a coffee at Starbucks or an order through DoorDash; it also works for Amazon, Netflix and other companies.

(Adams’s cryptocurrency paycheck is itself the result of a workaround, since department of labor regulations require the city of New York to pay employees in dollars. The mayor’s office says the paycheck will “automatically be converted” to cryptocurrency before it is made available to him, using the platform Coinbase.)

That means that Adams’s paycheck must first be converted from dollars to cryptocurrency, then be converted to a gift card, and finally be used to buy a smoothie. Efficient!

Another trick: he could turn to PayPal, which lets users spend cryptocurrency for transactions (Mastercard has a similar program). But the app first converts the cryptocurrency to actual dollars – creating another pointless cycle and contributing to a system that, according to Cambridge researchers, uses more electricity per year than the country of Argentina.

Will he be able to keep the lights on?

Probably not without turning to his actual bank account. Con Edison, New York’s enormous electricity and gas utility, does not accept cryptocurrency payments, a representative said. Cryptocurrency does a great job of draining the world of energy, but using it to buy some back appears difficult.

Of course, he’ll be living in Gracie Mansion, the New York mayor’s residence – meaning, presumably, he won’t be paying these bills anyway. Nor will he have to worry about whether his landlord accepts bitcoin.

Will he be able to get anywhere?

Not if he wants to take the subway like a normal New Yorker or any other transportation provided by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The MTA doesn’t accept cryptocurrency, a spokesperson said.

If he gets stuck, Adams might be able to hail an Uber using his paycheck, but it could be a long wait at the corner. Uber’s CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, indicated in February that he was open to accepting bitcoin in the future, but when is unclear. In the meantime, he could buy an Uber gift card.

Will he be able to use the very internet that cryptocurrency depends on?

Again, he could have trouble. Verizon Fios, New York’s biggest internet provider, does not appear to offer a cryptocurrency option for online payments. Adams may find himself turning to his pre-mayoral savings if he wants to check the price of bitcoin.

So what will he actually do?

Adams’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But he may well just “hold on to it as an investment”, says Neeraj Agrawal, communications director at Coin Center, a non-profit focused on cryptocurrency policy. “That has become the more common use of bitcoin these days.”

Or, if he’s feeling really financially innovative, he could go totally virtual: it won’t get him a ride on the subway, but he could buy the word “MetroCard” as an NFT for the equivalent of about $30.

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The assailants were pixelated, I’d know them anywhere • The Register

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Something for the Weekend, Sir? Stop that uterus! It stole my wallet!

What do you mean, “Can you identify the uterus in question?” It looked like a uterus! Or, as we’ve been singing it all through Christmas, a wooooom*.

Talk about getting the new year off to a bad start – I’ve just been robbed by a delinquent reproductive organ. Yet the all signs were there: I knew 2022 would be doomed back in early December when I read that the Salzburg Schokolade company, inventors of the mighty last-minute-airport-gift-shop chocolate ball Mozartkugel, had gone bust.

No, an oversize Toblerone will not suffice. M&Ms? In the bin, pal. Mr Ambassador, you can stick your Ferrero Rochers up your arse. Mozartkugeln were my faux-posh-but-actually-quite-cheap traveller chocs of choice. And now they’re gone forever!

First Bowie, then this. The world is falling apart.

A kindly officer of the law tries to bring me back to my senses following my unexpected mugging. Yes, thank you, I would like a drink. I’ll have an Adios Motherfucker*, please.

Without batting an eyelid, the policewoman strides down the corridor to the drinks machine, taps a few buttons on the display and returns after just 30 seconds with my glass of blue liquid revival. That was quick. The drinks machine must be a Mixo Two: an ingenious local invention that claims to be able to mix any of 300 cocktails in half a minute.

I glug it down, spit out the lemon slice and cherry, and hand back the little umbrella. I decide I’m feeling particularly agitated and may well need more calming down. 299 to go.

Now that my thoughts are clearing, I admit it’s possible my assailant might not have been a uterus after all. It might have been a whole human. I tell my police interviewers that my initial impression of a uterus suggests that it may have been a woman. I am lectured for the next 10 minutes on my questionable observation with the aid of infographics and a flipchart.

Choosing my words more carefully, I try to provide a full description of the thief. It all happened so fast. The last thing I remember, I had escaped the pandemonium at home – workers fixing the WC again – and settled down in a nearby cafe for a break. Well, primarily for a pee in their restroom, then I felt obliged to order a coffee. While waiting for it to arrive, I opened my laptop and continued browsing the hundreds of images taken during Mme D’s recent MRI scan.

Here’s one.

Screenshot of MRI scan of patient's uterus

Protect the innocent: to avoid identification by a web-scraping AI, this uterus has been pixelated. [Click to enlarge]

Prior to this, my only knowledge of MRI scanning comes from British colleagues at the IEEE who are finalising the unveiling of an IEEE Milestone plaque to commemorate the development in London during the 1980s of active shielding of superconducting magnets.

Mme D had a more detailed prior knowledge of MRI scanning as the result of watching every episode of House on Netflix. She reported that her only disappointment was that the operators seemed to concentrate on the scan rather than discuss their sex lives or call each other an idiot before suddenly dashing out the room after answering a call on their cellphone.

What neither of us expected was to be handed a CD of the highlights.

It doesn’t just contain a folder of images but a Windows autoplay program to browse them in detail. My favourite feature of the CD is the Cinema View, which plays back the scans at 25 frames per second. In fact, I had settled down in the living room with a Kia-Ora and carton of popcorn to watch Mme D’s innards on the big screen when the workmen arrived and enforced an early intermission.

It was when the coffee arrived at my table that I realised my wallet was not in my usual pocket, or indeed in any of my unusual pockets either. “Robbed!” I wailed. “No tip!” wailed the waiter. The police were duly called.

What was the last thing I saw before the incident? Er… a uterus. I describe it in as much detail as possible, at 25 frames per second.

So, I ask, are you going run it through your vast, secretive photo-fit database of the population, using some whizzy AI to shortlist the candidates?

Ah no, they respond, we’re not allowed to do that. And then they wink. All of them, in sync, which is a bit creepy. Then I am sent on my way, gently steered back up the corridor in the opposite direction from the Mix Two.

This is the usual conundrum. Scraping the net for the purposes of building a database for security services is still illegal unless you have really good PR, and the use of AI to crawl around the net and randomly apply face recognition to identify ne’er-do-wells is ethically dubious. In most cases, it can’t be done at all (yet).

On the other hand, machine learning is a fabulous tool for health research, if only we can throw enough data at it. The problem is that more people would be happy to share their medical data if they thought it wouldn’t be subsequently misused. And it will always be misused: that’s what personal data is for.

The last thing I’d want is for my photo to turn up on a hit-list of Interpol’s most-wanted criminal uteruses.

Back home, I am comforted by Mme D, who had been wondering what had prompted me to leave the house while a team of plumbers, electricians, interior decorators, plasterers, architects, stone masons, ironmongers, seismologists, stage illusionists, tap dance instructors, steel drummers, and celtic swordsmen were trampling all over it to refit the toilet for the fifth time.

I mumble a reply, collect the now-soggy popcorn and drag myself back into my office.

“By the way,” she calls, “you left your wallet on the kitchen table so I locked it in the filing cabinet.”

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Alistair Dabbs

Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. Back when he ran an office in London’s trendy Hoxton, he attended several cocktail workshops – an essential skill for the Silicon Roundabout crowd. The one thing he learnt was that everything is topped up with sugar water. Bleuh. More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.

*As an infant, I reasoned that “wooooom” was the kind of thing that a sheet-clad apparition moans while a haunting a castle. It was the holy ghost.

**Vodka, rum, tequila, gin, blue curacao, 7 Up, sweet & sour mix.



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‘Hiring is a big challenge for the IT industry’

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Citrix’s Meerah Rajavel discusses the biggest challenges in today’s IT landscape, from remote working and talent shortages to security.

Meerah Rajavel is CIO at Citrix a multinational cloud computing company that provides server, application and desktop virtualisation, networking and cloud computing technologies.

Rajavel has more than 25 years’ experience at well-known tech companies such as McAfee, Cisco and Forcepoint. In her current role, Rajavel she leads the company’s IT strategy.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’re facing in the current IT landscape?

Many companies viewed remote work as a temporary solution to the pandemic and business leaders continue to push for a return to the old days where employees work in the office every day. But we just did two polls on LinkedIn and Twitter that show this isn’t likely to happen.

That’s going to challenge a lot of organisations, because working remote isn’t easy. When it comes to addressing the technical aspects of how employees can cope and remain productive, you’ve got to walk in their shoes and understand how they leverage technology to achieve business outcomes.

The key to keeping employees engaged lies in providing consistent, secure and reliable access to the systems and information they need to get work done – wherever it needs to get done. And it takes more than just flipping the switch on technologies. Culture plays a huge role in adoption.

Another big challenge IT is faced with is hiring. It’s difficult to find high quality candidates in the areas of security, design thinking and user experience, data science and analytics right now. And there are a few reasons for this. Security remains a critical priority for CIOs. In the hybrid cloud, remote working, BYOD world we now live in, more resources are required to ensure that corporate networks and assets remain safe. And demand far exceeds supply.

When it comes to design thinking, the paradigm is shifting away from user-centric thinking toward human-and-machine thinking. This requires designers to be well versed with the constructs of the possibility of artificial intelligence and machine learning and analytics in addition to user experience in their workflow design process. And that’s a skill that’s not widely available.

What are your thoughts on digital transformation in a broad sense within your industry?

In the last decade, the digitalisation of everything has caused every company – regardless of industry – to become a software company. From mobile banking and virtual healthcare visits to self-driving cars and automated food prep and delivery services, software applications are embedded into nearly every aspect of the economy and our lives.

And as they embark on digital transformation initiatives to support this trend, IT leaders need to align with their business counterparts and make sure they’re collectively approaching things from an inside-out, company-wide perspective.

For me, any type of change management needs to be broken down into three key focus areas: people, process, and technology. But it’s imperative that you start with the people because without first establishing a culture around the change, it will be difficult to achieve success.

‘Digitalisation of everything has caused every company – regardless of industry – to become a software company’
– MEERAH RAJAVEL

When it comes to people, we are particularly mindful of two important elements: culture and training. First, we’ve worked to establish a culture that encourages risk taking and organisational success over individual success. Second, we’re investing in training programmes that enable individuals to confidently transition to the new technologies or way of working and be immediately effective.

In digital transformation, technology needs to be integrated into the ‘flow’ of business, which demands IT and business to embrace shared methods and process. For process, we’ve anchored on standards like safe agile frameworks that make culture and operational efficiency key pillars of any project, to help iterative value delivery and ease of adoption across all areas of the business.

And perhaps most important, we’re investing in the technology – including our own – to help automate and integrate workflows so we can reduce time to production, minimise disruption to the business and increase effectiveness.

What are your thoughts on how sustainability can be addressed from an IT perspective?

In embracing remote work and enabling it through technology, companies can drive their ESG goals and create a more sustainable business and future.

Using digital workspace technologies, for instance, they can give employees access to everything they need to engage and be productive wherever they happen to be, reducing the need to commute and the carbon emissions associated with doing so.

They can also eliminate the need for applications and data to reside on endpoint devices and transition from energy-intensive desktops to energy-efficient laptops to increase their energy efficiency. And because no data is required to live on these devices, they can extend the life of their equipment and reduce waste.

What big tech trends do you believe are changing the world?

We did some research that showed 93pc of business leaders think the increased digital collaboration forced by remote work has amplified more diverse voices, resulting in richer idea generation. And as flexible work becomes the norm, the vast majority expect enhanced equity and collaboration to continue and fuel an era of hyper-innovation. And this excites me.

With flexible work, I see more innovation happening to converge physical and digital experiences. Whether it’s concept like metaverse or technologies like AI/ML and VR/XR integrated into the collaboration tools, all aim to enhance the experience and effectiveness for users in a location agnostic fashion.

What are your thoughts on the security challenges currently facing your industry?

The threat landscape has become much more sophisticated as a result of remote and hybrid work and protecting employees has never been more critical – or difficult.

Employees want the freedom to work when, where and how they want using the devices of their choice. And to attract and retain them in what is no doubt the tightest labour market the world has ever seen and keep them engaged and productive, IT needs to serve it up, all while ensuring corporate assets and data remain safe.

It’s among the biggest challenges we face. And to overcome it, we must move beyond thinking that security and user experience are mutually exclusive and take an intelligent approach to workspace security that combines the two following the zero-trust model to give employees simple, unified access to the apps and information they need, when and where they need it, to perform at their best.

We’ve also witnessed two major software supply chain attacks in the last 12 months with SolarWinds and Log4j.

The first is an example of how easily malicious code can be remotely injected into a simple software update delivered to thousands of enterprises and government agencies worldwide. The second highlights how threat actors are increasingly targeting the vulnerabilities in third-party software components to cause widespread havoc.

All of this underscores the importance of securing the software supply chain and adopting practices like DevSecOps.

Don’t miss out on the knowledge you need to succeed. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of need-to-know sci-tech news.



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